A Guide to Understanding the Bible
by Harry Emerson Fosdick


One major result of the last half-century of Biblical scholarship is ability to arrange the documents of Scripture in their approximately chronological order. The typical questions asked by scholars concerning Biblical writings — Who wrote them? When, to whom, and why were they written? — while still presenting many baffling difficulties, have been answered sufficiently to clarify the broad outlines of the Bible’s chronological development.

An important result of thus seeing the Biblical writings in sequence is ability to study the development of Biblical ideas. Upon this problem some of the best scholarly work in recent years has been expended. Seen as informed students now regard it, the Bible is the record of an incalculably influential development of religious thought and life, extending from the primitive faith of early Hebraism into the Christianity of the second century. Such a bald statement, however, does scant justice to the illumination which has thus fallen on the Jewish-Christian writings. The first results of critical research into the Bible seemed disruptive, tearing the once unified Book into many disparate and often contradictory documents. The final result has turned out to be constructive, putting the Bible together again, not indeed on the old basis of a level, infallible inspiration, but on the factually demonstrable basis of a coherent development. The Scriptures reflect some twelve centuries and more of deepening and enlarging spiritual experience and insight, in the written record of which nothing is without significance, and everything is illumined by its genetic relationships.

In general, this view of the Scriptures has become the common property of the well-informed, but it still remains, in many minds, a mere framework without substantial content. That the Bible is the record of centuries of religious change, that its early concepts are allied with primitive, animistic faiths, that between such origins and the messages of Hebrew prophets and Christian evangelists an immensely important development is reflected in the Book — this general view is the familiar possession of many in both synagogue and church. All too few, however, have any clear and specific conception of the ways in which the Biblical ideas unfolded from their beginnings until they became one of the most potent influences in Western culture.

One reason for this situation is that scholars, who know the fascinating story of the development of Biblical ideas, have commonly written of it in technical terms, so that while the average minister, the intelligent layman, and the college student may know by hearsay the outline of their findings, the books where the substance of the matter lies are often too recondite for general reading. Yet the story of developing Scriptural ideas ought to be popularly known. It is fascinating in itself; it throws light on every portion of the Bible; it clears up obscurities, explaining what is else inexplicable; it distinguishes the minor detours from the major highways of Biblical thought; it gives their true value to primitive concepts, the early, blazed trails leading out to great issues; and, in the end, it makes of the Bible a coherent whole, understood, as everything has to be understood, in terms of its origins and growth. This illuminating outlook on the Scriptures ought somehow to be made a more available possession than it is for the general reader.

This present book is written neither by a technical scholar nor for scholars. It is written for the interested student and endeavors to build a bridge over which available information concerning developing Biblical ideas may pass into the possession of a larger public. To be sure, no device can translate so weighty a matter into light and casual reading. The subject is serious and, at its simplest, requires serious consideration. Nevertheless, with the Bible still the world’s "best-seller," there must be many whose reading of it would gain meaning and interest if the knowledge possessed by the expertly informed were more easily at their disposal.

Readers unaccustomed to think of the Biblical literature in terms of its chronological development are advised to consult the approximate dating of the documents presented in the Appendix. (Ed. — See Chronology File) The unsolved problems in this realm are many and in some cases wide variations exist between the estimates of different scholars, but the main outline seems dependable as a basis for so general a statement as we are here attempting. Since the chronological arrangement of the Biblical writings is fundamental to this book’s discussion, two thorough and readable treatments of the matter are specially recommended: The Literature of the Old Testament in Its Historical Development, by Julius A. Bewer, and The Literature of the New Testament, by Ernest Findlay Scott, both published by the Columbia University Press.

In trying to achieve the object we have just described, two major methods have been used in this book.

First, six main strands of developing thought have been, so far as possible, disentangled from their mutual complications, and have been separately presented. The ideas of God, Man, Right and Wrong, Suffering, Fellowship with God, and Immortality have been traced, each by itself, as each progresses through the two Testaments. The alternative method, often used by scholars, considers one epoch of Biblical religion at a time, presenting the entire complex of ideas which characterized that era, and then moves on to study the next succeeding epoch as a whole. For the general reader, however, this method adds the confusion of complexity to the natural difficulties of the subject. I have hoped that, by driving six separate roadways through Scripture, clarity might be gained without serious sacrifice of balance and proportion, and that the very fact of repetition, as each roadway inevitably brings the traveler within sight of familiar scenes common to all six, would help rather than hinder comprehension.

Second, these lines of developing thought have been traced, one at a time, through both Testaments. The specialization of surgeons, who will not invade one another’s domain, is hardly more precise than is the specialization of Biblical scholars. In particular, the Old Testament, the inter-Testamental writings, and the New Testament, represent areas of well defined and highly differentiated expertness. The result is that while the general reader may find available the story of developing thought in one era, or in the Old Testament, or in the New Testament, no first-rate scholar has written or would be likely to write a book carrying the course of thought through the Bible as a whole. Only some one with no reputation for original scholarship to maintain, free to avail himself of any scholar’s work, professing only a transmissive and interpretive function, and interested not in moot details but in general results, would have the hardihood to undertake the task. Having, therefore, lived for years with Biblical scholars as my friends and colleagues and in the classroom having dealt with students, trying to gain a coherent and usable understanding of the Bible for practical purposes, I have dared the attempt to put together developments of ideas which the separate Biblical disciplines leave apart. I am under no illusion as to the adequacy of the result. This book is now published only after two of my colleagues, Professor Julius A. Bewer and Professor James E. Frame, one an authority on the Old Testament and the other on the New, have read the manuscript with painstaking care. I may not hold them responsible for any opinion expressed in this book, but to their criticism and guidance I am unpayably indebted and only because of it dare hope that I have presented without undue distortion or prejudice a picture of the major trends of thought in the Jewish-Christian scriptures.

In writing the book I have constantly encountered four difficulties, and since the author has been acutely aware of them they will probably be visible to the observant reader — oversimplification, inadequate exposition, the chronological fallacy, and modernization.

Over-simplification is inevitable in the very process of selective attention involved in the method of this book. To disentangle from its many complications the idea of God, for example, and to follow through from early Hebraism to second-century Christianity this idea’s progress, while it makes the story more easily understandable, obscures the actual confusion of cross-currents, back-eddies, stagnant shallows, whirlpools, rapids, and cataracts present in history itself. It tends toward over-clarifying the picture and, in the end, it may even draw a diagram, rather than reproduce in the reader’s imagination the total struggle involved in the working out of Biblical ideas. Of this danger I have been constantly aware and have endeavored to guard against it. If the reader will do the same, he may avail himself of such simplification as has been achieved, without too serious loss of historic realism.

Inadequate exposition of the matured convictions of Scripture is also necessarily involved in the purpose and method of this book. Its major interest is not expository but genetic; it tries to trace the highroads traversed by Biblical ideas from their origin to their culmination; when they have reached their culmination it makes no endeavor to give a systematic and adequate exposition of them. It is not primarily a book on Biblical theology but a genetic survey of developing Biblical thought. To be sure, if the reader shares at all the author’s experience, he will find that clear light is shed on the mature convictions of Judaism and Christianity by such a study of their origins and growth. To know where Scriptural doctrines came from is in itself an indispensable help in understanding what they mean. Nevertheless, if the reader wishes an adequate theological treatment of such a theme as Biblical monotheism, he should look elsewhere, here he will find only the story of the way in which Biblical monotheism emerged from early origins.

The chronological fallacy haunts such a study as this and is difficult to avoid. The very fact that six historically influential ideas are presented in terms of development, with their later formulations on an altitude immeasurably higher than the lowlands from which they came, may produce the illusion of constant ascent, as though being posterior in time always meant being superior in quality. But truth and chronology are incommensurable terms. A poet writing in the twentieth century A.D. may be a puny figure compared with the titanic stature of a Greek dramatist five centuries before Christ, and ethical insight cannot be graded on the basis of the calendar. The fact that one Biblical book is later in time than another is in itself not the slightest indication that it is superior in quality — Nahum is on a much lower spiritual level than Amos, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament is morally inferior to the writings of the Great Isaiah in the Old Testament. Of this fact the reader is continually reminded in this book, and no statement, I think, denies or neglects it. I have tried to make plain the retrogressions in Biblical thought, the irregularities of change, with its ups and downs, its persistent lags, and its moral surrenders. There is no smooth and even ascent in the Book. There are, instead, long detours, recrudescences of primitivism, lost ethical gains, and lapses in spiritual insight. There are even vehement denials of nascent truth, and high visions that go neglected for centuries. At this point I am solicitous that my desire for clarity in tracing development may not beguile any reader into the illusions of the chronological fallacy.

Modernization dogs the footsteps of any one who endeavors to make ancient developments of thought live for contemporary readers. By subtle, unnoticed gradations the presentation of old patterns of thinking slips over into twentieth-century categories and phrases. The more one perceives in ancient literature, whether of Judea or Greece, values of permanent validity, the more one tends to lift them out of their original frameworks of concept and present them in modern terms and ways of thinking. But ‘corporate personality,’ demonology, Messiahship, apocalypticism, the Logos-doctrine, and many other mental categories in the Bible are not modern. It requires a difficult thrust of historic imagination to understand at all what they meant to their original users. It may be comforting to translate them into present-day equivalents but that always involves an historic fallacy. This difficulty is everywhere present in this book and I wish the reader to be aware of it. I have honestly tried never to picture an ancient way of conceiving facts as though it were identical with modern thinking, but always to portray the Biblical writers as using their own mental forms of thought in their own way, however diverse from ours those forms may be. Such is the difficulty involved, however, in making modern language serve this purpose that in this regard the coöperation of the reader is imperative.

The implications of this book with regard to theories about the Bible are not discussed in the text. Obviously, any idea of inspiration which implies equal value in the teachings of Scripture, or inerrancy in its statements, or conclusive infallibility in its ideas, is irreconcilable with such facts as this book presents. The inspirations of God fortunately have not been thus stereotyped and mechanical. There is, however, nothing in the process of development itself, whether in the organic world in general or in the realm of mind and morals, to call in question the creative and directive activity of God.

Needless to say, the author is a theist. The process of spiritual development reflected in the Bible seems to him to involve not only human discovery but divine self-disclosure. Indeed, the unfolding of ideas which the Scripture records would represent not so much discovery as illusion, were there not an objective spiritual world to be discovered. Any one, therefore, holding a religious rather than a materialistic philosophy, will think of the process of Biblical development as dual — seen from one side, a human achievement; seen from the other, a divine self-revelation.

Nevertheless, there is no finality about it in the sense that the ideas which the Scriptures opened up were finished when the Scriptures stopped. Neither Judaism nor Christianity, despite their theories, has in practise succeeded in so treating the Book. Every one of the six lines of unfolding thought traced in this volume has had a long subsequent history of continuing development, and the end is not yet in sight. The God of the Bible has proved his quality as "the living God," who has not said his last word on any subject or put the finishing touch on any task. The supreme contribution of the Bible is not that it finished anything but that it started something. Its thinking is not so much a product as a process, issuing from a long precedent process and inaugurating an immeasurably important subsequent development.

To be sure, as Copernicus achieved a finality in establishing a heliocentric universe, so the Bible represents final gains in thought and insight — apprehensions of truth which, once laid hold on, need not be discovered all over again. The real glory of Copernicus, however, is revealed not so much in what he finished as in what he started — initiating an insight of incalculable future promise, which modern astronomy is unfolding yet. So, the finalties of Scripture are mainly important because they are germinative. They are misinterpreted and misused when employed to stop further development rather than to encourage it. One reason for such a study as this book presents is that one cannot understand Western thought in any era, or our own thought in this modern age, without knowing the Biblical origins of our ideas in religion and morals.

It would be less than the truth, however, if the author’s interest in writing the book were represented as merely the desire to explain ideologies. I have faithfully tried to present an objective, factual picture of unfolding Biblical thought, but it will doubtless be evident that the central ideas of Scripture, in whatever changing categories they may be phrased, seem to me the hope of man’s individual and social life.

One major problem in writing this book has been the difficulty of deciding when to quote the Scriptures fully in the text and when merely to refer to them in the footnotes. I have used such judgment as I possess in this matter, but obviously much of the Biblical evidence that confirms and illumines the statements made is concealed in the unquoted Scriptural references. No one, therefore, can read the book thoroughly who does not read it with a Bible at hand for constant consultation. Except when otherwise indicated, the American Standard Edition of the Revised Bible is used, save that ‘Jehovah’ is replaced by the more correct form, ‘Yahweh.’

That I am at every point indebted to the work of others is evident in the text, and in major matters this has been made explicit in the footnotes. The larger field of the book’s indebtedness is indicated in the appended bibliography. As to obligations of a more personal nature I have many people to thank — colleagues who have advised me, students at Union Theological Seminary who have stimulated me with their responsive interest, members of the congregation of The Riverside Church, New York, who, by their attentive listening to mid-week lectures on the subjects handled in this book, have kept alive my confidence that even difficult and recondite problems concerning the Bible are of vital, contemporary importance. Nor would it be fair to publish this book without acknowledging my debt to the tireless patience of my secretaries, and especially to the painstaking care of Miss Margaret Renton in correcting and preparing the manuscript.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, June 30, 1938